Arctic meltdown

Unprecedented global heating in the Arctic, and its impact on the region

Cover photo by klem@s via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you have spent time outdoors in the past month, it should come as no surprise that we face a very hot summer ahead. Temperatures are rising and reaching record-breaking numbers around the globe. According to scientists like Friederike Otto, climatologist and professor at the University of Oxford’s global climate science program, our fossil fuel activity is to blame.

Greenhouse gas emissions and rising temperatures

Sandor Somkuti via Flickr, U.S. Public Domain

Greenhouse gas emissions have increased global temperatures by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since preindustrial times, and fossil fuel projects have only worsened this reality. Oil drilling projects like ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project are bad news for our planet. Their impact is especially amplified by their position in the Arctic.

Warming four times as fast as the global average, the Arctic region is vulnerable to rising temperatures and currently experiencing transformative climate change impacts. Its ecosystems have already begun to break down due to changes in sea ice cover, glaciers and permafrost. The survival of wildlife, along with the livelihoods and health of Indigenous communities, are at high risk. 

Retreating glacier, Alpefjord, Northeast Greenland National Park. 

GRID-Arendal via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Over the past 30 years, sea ice coverage has decreased dramatically alongside rising temperatures. Less sea ice has resulted in less sunlight reflected and more absorbed by exposed darker ocean surfaces, causing even greater sea ice loss. Glaciers have simultaneously begun to melt at rapid rates, which further contributes to rising sea levels and habitat degradation. Ice-dependent species like polar bears and walruses are in grave danger. By 2100, they could face displacement, reproductive failure and starvation. They are not the only ones in danger. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is America’s largest wildlife refuge and provides habitat for caribou, porcupines, foxes and more than 200 species of migratory birds. Disruption of one species will alter a delicate and intricately interconnected ecosystem.

A threat to the survival of the Arctic’s wildlife is a threat to the survival of the Indigenous people, such as the Gwich’in, whose traditional lifestyle depends on subsistence hunting. The melting Arctic landscape endangers wildlife and affects the availability of traditional food sources, while also making activities like hunting and fishing more precarious. The number and frequency of tundra wildfires has also increased alongside warmer temperatures, further threatening potential food sources. For communities who have thrived in the region for centuries, food shortages are now becoming an approaching reality.

Polar bears across the Arctic face shorter sea ice season

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Permafrost, the frozen layer of soil that has covered the tundra for millennia, is thawing. Studies indicate that up to 10 feet of permafrost is likely to melt if emissions do not decrease. The disintegration of permafrost would destabilize land, triggering environmental catastrophes and sinking infrastructure. If we continue on our current warming trajectory, the Arctic will not only see food shortages, but landslides, collapsed seashores, buckling roads, drained lakes and sinking homes as well. 

The impact of thawing permafrost is not isolated to the Arctic, however. Covering around a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land, permafrost stores around 1.5 million metric tons of carbon. Thawing would lead to the release of stores of greenhouse gases like methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide that have remained locked in the soil for ages. Both the Arctic and our global climate system would be affected and its severe impact felt worldwide.

 The Arctic cannot afford the effects of rising temperatures. One important step we must take to save the Arctic is to call on the Department of the Interior to reject dangerous oil extraction in Alaska, including ConocoPhillips’ Willow Project. 

This blog was coauthored by Environment America Intern Jasmine Sinchai

Tell the Bureau of Land Management: No drilling in the Arctic tundra


Ellen Montgomery

Director, Public Lands Campaign, Environment America

Ellen runs campaigns to protect America's beautiful places, from local beachfronts to remote mountain peaks. Prior to her current role, Ellen worked as the organizing director for Environment America’s Climate Defenders campaign. Ellen lives in Denver, where she likes to hike in Colorado's mountains.